Monday, September 22nd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy
Wm. Friedkin & cast of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985)

This essay on William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. was written by the UW Cinematheque's Ben Reiser. To Live and Die in L.A. will screen on Friday, September 26, 2015 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

To Relive and Die in L.A.

By Ben Reiser

UW Cinematheque offers us the chance to revisit films we may have seen at other times in our lives, affording us the opportunity to see how our memory of these films compares to the reality of how they play out onscreen for us in our present day. In some cases, we may have previously seen a film only on TV, or at a drive-in while on a hot date, or on opening night with no idea what to expect. When I was eight years old, my grandparents took me to see The Towering Inferno, and my grandmother spent half of the first twenty-five minutes putting her hand over my eyes to shield me from any possible trauma, then a guy emerged, on fire, from an elevator, and we left. Four years ago my nine-year old daughter and I started watching that same movie on TV and she turned to me after a half hour to say, “This is boring” and left the room.

In any case, we bring something different to the table every time we watch a movie. No two viewings are ever quite the same, and revisiting a film tells us more about both the film and ourselves. Where we are in our lives affects what we are able to appreciate and understand when it comes to this art form.

What I brought to my first viewing of To Live and Die in L.A. was mostly Wang Chung. Sure, I knew who William Friedkin was, I’d seen (most of) The French Connection and (some of) The Exorcist on television, but if anyone had bothered to ask me why I was in Brooklyn New York’s Kingsway theater on the film’s opening weekend in 1985, I would have said (in the words of Mickey Rourke’s character, “Boogie”, at the beginning of Diner), “I’m only here because I appreciate the fine music.”

I’d first encountered Wang (then Huang) Chung a few years earlier while combing the racks of Titus Oaks, a used record store on Avenue U.  I was intrigued by the album cover, which looked like an ornate Chinese restaurant menu.

I gambled $3.99 brought it home and immediately fell in love with a song called “Hold Back The Tears.” Two albums later I was still a fan, and when I found out the band had scored To Live and Die in L.A., I went out and bought the soundtrack album, and made plans to check out the movie.

My memories of that first viewing center on my enjoyment of the prominent role the score played in the film, the unsettlingly intense vibe of many of the performances, and the sense that the narrative was careening out of control at several key points in the movie. Every time I thought I had a handle on where the story was going, the plot took a jarring and nerve-wracking turn.

Looking back I realize it was my first encounter with many actors who are now household names. For instance, it was the first time I took notice of John Turturro, who would soon cement his status as an actor of uncommon force in The Color of Money. William Petersen, who stars as Secret Service agent, Richard Chance, would go on to complete an impressive leading man one-two punch the next year with his turn as Will Graham in Michael Mann’s Manhunter before fading into obscurity for over a decade (consider that not one but both of TV’s biggest CSI franchises were built around Friedkin stars who hadn’t been visible in the years leading up to their CSI star turns: Petersen and David  Caruso, the star of Friedkin’s Jade,). Then, of course, there’s Willem Dafoe, whom I’d erased from my memory along with the rest of  Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire only to have him freak me out all over again in To Live and Die

Watching the film again this week it will be impossible for me to see it without the knowledge of these actors and all the roles they’ve inhabited in the ensuing years. This knowledge will in some way lessen the impact of their performances (now I know they are “only” actors) while at the same time perhaps deepen my appreciation of these actors who arrived on screen so rivetingly and fully formed.

What I bring to the table this week is the fact that I haven’t listened to a Wang Chung album in years, and I have a nagging fear that perhaps their score has not aged well, and might come off as more Hans Zimmer and less Tangerine Dream. I also bring with me a relatively newfound appreciation of Friedkin as a director, whose career resurgence has taken the form of lean, mean adaptations of Bug and Killer Joe and a recent restoration and Blu-ray release of his unjustly neglected Sorcerer.

And of course, those of us who saw Cinematheque’s screening of The French Connection a few weeks ago will be tempted to read To Live and Die in L.A. as a companion piece, a mirror, a re-telling of that earlier film, a comparative exploration of the similarities and differences between crime and punishment and law and order in the two cities that define our country’s coasts.

Certainly To Live and Die in L.A. invites these comparisons. For the first hour the film follows virtually the same structure as French Connection, and at the very least, I’d suggest that Friedkin does this deliberately if for no other reason than to further disorient us when things stop following the trajectory of his earlier masterpiece. Suddenly our roadmap disintegrates and as an audience we break into a collective cold sweat, as unsure of where to rest our allegiances as John Pankow’s character John Vucovich (Pankow’s deliciously awkward fish-out-of-water turn as Petersen’s partner in justice and crime is one of the more entertaining aspects of the film).

Disorientation and forward momentum are hallmarks of many great thrillers; the trick being to get us so caught up in both fearing for our protagonist’s well being while at the same time trying to unravel what we are witnessing that we don’t have time to start questioning the interior logic of the piece. Repeated viewings are always tough on a thriller, a genre where logic is often sacrificed for the sake of a fun ride, but some of the really good ones (and I’d argue that To Live and Die in L.A. is one of the really really good ones) have enough visceral action, clever twists, and bravura set pieces to counteract the scrutiny.

Repeated viewings of well-crafted films often unearth hidden layers, and in this respect, To Live and Die pays off big time. I’m loathe to offer any spoilers for those who will experience the film for the first time on Friday, but Friedkin gets off to a fast start in establishing a leitmotif of abruptness: The opening theme song stops suddenly, and there are two quick deaths. Scenes start and end quickly, and time elapses suddenly, without warning both within scenes and as transitions between scenes.

Mirroring and twinning are everywhere, as one main character sets a self-portrait on fire and another jumps off a bridge without a safety net. Suffice to say there is significance in all of these things that are readily apparent only with repeated viewings. These moments and other seemingly random images, as well as subtle hints of androgyny and homoeroticism are all part of a deliberate and methodical structure and style that Friedkin, collaborating with co-screenwriter Gerald Petievich and veteran cinematographer Robby Muller, has constructed for our viewing and re-viewing pleasure.


Friday, September 12th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Anthony Kimmin's 1953 film The Captain's Paradise were written by UW Madison Graduate Student and Teaching Assistant Andrew Zolides. The Captain's Paradise will screen in a 35mm print as part of our series "Alec Guinness: Centennial for a Comic Genius" on Saturday, September 13, at 7 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall.

My Grandfather’s Paradise
By Andrew Zolides

Last year, my 79-year old grandmother became quite reflective on her past. Often without prompting, she clearly and articulately began recalling memories from her childhood, her teenage years, and her time raising my father, uncle, and aunt. Interested in learning more and realizing this may be our last chance, my family has started pushing her for stories and tidbits, both mundane and exceptional. Despite her age, her mind seems as sharp as ever, detailing events as far back as the 1939 New York World’s Fair, as well as the double-feature pictures her older brother would take her to in Astoria every week.

All the memories were not positive, of course, particularly as she revealed to us never-before-discussed minutiae of the dissolution of her marriage to her first husband, my late grandfather. My dad was only 16 when the two divorced, after it was revealed that my grandfather had started another family with a younger woman; she was a secretary from work, just to solidify the old stereotype.

These were all facts we knew, but during my grandmother’s recent reflections a minor detail about my grandfather’s favorite film changed the way we all viewed this man, who had only passed the year before. One night, she remembered my grandfather particularly liking a certain “Alec Guinness picture” enough to see it multiple times, which was rare for the man. While my grandmother couldn’t recall all the details, she believed Guinness played a sailor or ship captain and that the film took place in Europe. This was enough for me to deduce that the film in question was 1953’s The Captain’s Paradise, a film that came out when my grandfather was an impressionable 23-year old man considering marriage and family. Three years after the film’s release, he would marry my grandmother and set his goals in motion.

Captain Henry St. James (Alec Guinness) has it all figured out. As he tells his Chief Officer Carlos Ricco (Charles Goldner), “That, Ricco, is my solution to man’s happiness on Earth. Two happy women, each in their way perfect, and in between the company of men, the clash of intellects to stimulate the mind.” Putting aside the blatant sexism one uncovers when asking why neither of his two women could provide the intellect he required, St. James proves a reliable man to both his women. For wife Maud (Celia Johnson), he provides a sober, stable life filled with warm cocoa and a new vacuum cleaner. And for his lover Nita (Yvonne de Carlo), St. James provides the money and energy she needs to enjoy fancy restaurants, impromptu night swimming, and exotic lingerie.

Guinness plays Henry St. James as the classic con artist with a heart of gold. He lies, deceives, and plays every angle (including having his wife arrested to avoid being caught), yet his charm and humor win us over in the end. Of course much of this comes from Guinness’s natural charisma. It is difficult to imagine many other contemporary actors who could play such a scoundrel, yet make us like him all the same. St. James wishes for his women to be happy, but in the end this is ultimately in service to himself; later in the film, the comic juxtaposition of each woman desiring a life more like her unknown counterpart causes St. James great concern over how it will affect his “solution,” and if it will cause things to crumble around him.

Which brings me back to my grandfather. The Captain’s Paradise was not just his favorite movie; it was his guide to life. Guinness was able to win over not just the two women in the film, but the hearts and minds of the young men in the audience. My grandmother was Maud, the housewife and mother who kept the home and raised the children. Jane, the secretary with whom my grandfather had an affair and eventually started a second family, was Nita. Young, tall, and blonde, she was the socialite desiring furs and frivolity.

When my family gathered to watch The Captain’s Paradise for the first time, you might expect a somber realization of the personal parallels between my grandfather’s life and that of Henry St. James. Make no doubt; seeing the trials and successes of Guinness’ character certainly provided new insight into how we all viewed the family patriarch. The motivations for actions throughout his life seemed to become clearer, perhaps even understandable, in the right frame of reference.

We noted the similarities and the coincidences, the lines of dialogue from Alec Guinness that sounded near perfect to the way my grandfather would speak. But we also simply watched and enjoyed the film for what it was: a comedy of errors. The subject matter seemed far too serious for such a light tone; if any family could see that, it was mine. Yet there is something so appealing about watching Alec Guinness play the loving, calm husband and the fun-loving, jovial party-animal within mere minutes of each other. We laughed when Maud and Nita meet and as they verbally tip-toed around their shared ‘interest,’ feeling the suspense as they walked through the market. And we even let out a chuckle of relief as Captain St. James escaped certain death using, what else, a bribe.

The Captain’s Paradise is a reminder of the power of those ineffable qualities: charm, charisma, and quick wit. Guinness’s natural personality and talent shine through to help make a film about bigamy fun and light-hearted, not just in spite of the subject matter, but because of it. I would never recommend anyone follow Henry St. James’s “solution” to happiness, but that wouldn’t stop me recommending watching his attempts at fulfilling it play out.


Monday, August 18th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes by UW Madison student Austin Wellens were distributed at our screenings of Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia in January and August of this year.

Tarkovsky’s stated purpose in creating Nostalghia was “to make a film about Russian nostalgia – about that state of mind peculiar to our nation which affects Russians who are far from their native land,” and the window he gives us to peer through at this unique affliction is Andrei, the displaced Russian writer at the center of the film. Surrounded by postcard-worthy Italian scenery, he is alternatingly impassive and overwhelmed; in either case, his disconnection from everything around him is palpable, as he finds more of himself in in the centuries-dead Russian serf composer he’s researching than he can in the woman guiding him on his tour, or anything in the grandeur of the cathedrals he drifts through.

Tarkovsky’s camera glides and hovers through Andrei’s settings in long, gorgeous takes, the never ending Italian hallways and arches interrupted only by the gold and grain of Russian memories, the only instances which feel tangible, textile, and real. An all-encompassing atmosphere that, moment by moment, presses down onto the central character amplifies the weight of every deliberate motion. The air hangs heavy, broken by light and saturated with moist and chill. Every breath is oppressive. Water flows and falls at seemingly all times, keeping Andrei pinned with the cold and damp and allowing not a second’s respite from the waves of ancient and Italian architecture. Even his language has been taken from him. His Italian is stiff, uncomfortable and inexpressive; Russian poetry loses its song in a foreign tongue. When he does find a brief moment to shelter in some flooded ruins, waste himself on vodka and let his native speech flow, he is transformed. Yankovsky’s performance lights up, growing a kinetic dimension that dispels the gloom of Andrei’s separation for a brief period. And yet the world remains just outside, like a nightmare to be returned to after being startled awake.

Tarkovsky’s ability to stretch a second far beyond itself and to create space is total, and it crafts a film heavy with its character’s psyche and suffering through and beyond its final frame. Yet while Andrei is wholly consumed by this distance, there is some shimmering hope seen beyond and above through the eyes of Domenico the madman and Eugenia.

In Domenico, Andrei finds the only thing that can fascinate him. His life mangled by fascism, considered a lunatic by the society that surrounds him, he’s a man as removed from the moment as the Russian, but his concerns run far beyond “getting home,” back to where he was. He sees all around him the disconnected nature and distress of modern society, the overwhelming bustle and emptiness that Andrei finds in the postcard beauty of Italian chapels. While it is easy to view Andrei as a sort of authorial avatar for Tarkovsky, it is through Domenico that the director’s voice can be most directly heard. His demonstration of two drops of water making not two drops but one larger drop, of one plus one being one, pleads for wholeness on a universal scale, an appeal to retie the bonds holding present to past to future and restore humanity to a cold and distant society. Domenico shouts his pleas from statues, through the streets of Rome, gives all of himself in a desperate appeal to an impassive and unmoving audience. He cries for an apocalypse taking place before his eyes, incites people to revolt, to reconnect, and to reach for something deeper and higher than simple nationality or place.

This wholeness that Tarkovsky searches for is found rooted in women, in femininity, in Eugenia, and in sacred motherhood. Nostalghia is dedicated to his mother, the woman to whom he would compare all others in his life, and in her, or at least in the idea of her, the director finds the promise of completion that is needed to rescue humanity from itself. Sexuality is completely removed from the equation; the closest it comes is base and furious and, frankly, below the purpose of the film. Rather, Tarkovsky conflates women and femininity with the holy and the divine, with the source of our being that we’ve grown so far from. When Andrei dreams of home, it is of his wife, his mother and his sisters. In Italy, it’s just a man and his dog. Do not believe for a moment it is coincidental that the country he pines for is known as the Motherland. 

At the end of the film, it is Eugenia, not Domenico or Andrei, who speaks with god about the possibility of being saved. Tarkovsky extrapolates from motherhood, to nationhood, to the broadest sense of belonging imaginable. In this he creates a film that is deeply personal, unique and specific, but also operates on the largest and most universal level that art is capable of. And ultimately, he concludes with the greatest promise imaginable; that salvation is already here. We are surrounded by our redemption, even if we cannot see it.

The production of Nostalghia, which saw Tarkovsky leave the Soviet Union to work for only the second time in his life, came at a huge cost. In his notes following its completion, he confessed to feeling the stress of working so far from home, and in an unfamiliar language, writing “when I first saw all the material shot for the film I was startled to find it was a spectacle of unrelieved gloom…irrespective of my own specific theoretical intentions, the camera was obeying first and foremost my inner state during filming.” The tragic reflections of life and art don’t end there, though, as his Russian support was withdrawn halfway through filming, forcing him to draw on Italian resources to finish the picture and exiling him from his home. He would never again return to Russia. As he wrote, “How could I have imagined as I was making Nostalghia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear the painful malady within myself?” - Austin Wellens


Thursday, July 31st, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

Our recent screening of Alan Resnais’ rarely seen masterpiece, Je T’aime, Je T’aime (called "A magnificent film” by Manohla Dargis of The New York Times), was brought to you in part through the burgeoning film distributor Bleeding Light Film Group.

The founder of Bleeding Light, Brian Block is an Alumnus of the UW-Madison Communications Department. Brian kindly took the time to speak with us on his new company and his thoughts on the film. Here is a transcript of the Q&A.

How did you get started as a film distributor?
It grew out of a need to share films with people. The transition from doing it as a hobby to a business is really about the availability of films in certain formats and the responsibilities that come with that. Look at it this way, if I can't loan a friend a copy of JE T'AIME, JE T'AIME because it's not on DVD in the US, then I might as well strike a 35mm print and show it to as many people as possible.   
What is in the future for the Bleeding Light Film Group? What films are you trying to acquire next?
We don't have anything nailed down at the moment, but we are hoping to get weirder.

What are your thoughts on Je T’aime, Je T’aime?
It's a film I love. I tell people that it's about a time travel experiment gone wrong, forcing the protagonist to relive all the tragedies of his life over and over and over again. Response is typically, "I don't wanna see that - that's already my life." Exactly!

Do you know of anyone planning on releasing Je T'aime, Je T'aime on DVD in the near future such as Criterion Collection?
We're working on making a video version available in North America later this year - stay tuned for details.

When will be the next chance after our screening for folks to see the film?
The print is touring the US and Canada through the end of the year, so there are many opportunities to catch it on screen before it's finally released on home video. Our distribution partners at The Film Desk list all the Je T’aime Je T’aime play dates here: http://thefilmdesk.com/jetaimejetaime/.

(interview by Bianca Martin)


Friday, July 25th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Wes Anderson's Rushmore were written by Austin Wellens, UW, Madison student. Rushmore will screen at 9 p.m. on Friday, July 25, in the Marquee Theater at Union South.

While his first feature Bottle Rocket bears all the trappings that its director would come to be associated with, it was Rushmore that inaugurated the world of Wes Anderson as we’ve come to know it. Where his debut film feels a bit like a collision between the universe we all share and the one he envisions, its follow-up is more distinctly defined by its artifice (transparently foregrounded by the “acts and seasons” structure imposed on it). At the same time it shows a much deeper, personal connection between the art and the artist; the story of a kid struggling to belong to his prep school world is straight out of Anderson’s past in Houston, with the actual school he’d attended serving as Rushmore itself (they were filming in the building while the director’s ten year class reunion was taking place. Anderson failed to attend) and the high school his father had gone to doubling as the public school from later in the film. If the first film provides an introduction to the world of Wes Anderson, Rushmore is an invitation.

Inside, we find the characters of Max Fischer, Herman Blume, and Rosemary Cross, three people sharing the same ailment; loss. For Max, who is the closest Anderson has come to writing himself into his films, it’s the childhood loss of his mother. But more than that, it’s a loss of that childhood sense of everything fitting together, of having control over everything. In the face of his early childhood tragedy, Max tries to find something comparable in an adopted, premature adulthood, re-staging mature works like Serpico and Platoon as school plays and trying to consort with authority figures as equals.

But beyond constantly performing his idea of a grown-up, Max works to control the world around him with almost total indifference to its reality; he imposes a post-graduate year on his school, he orders piranhas from “his guy” in South America, and he alternatingly works to destroy and resurrect Latin as it suits his purposes. And as far as we can tell, he believes these fictions whole-heartedly. It’s as if by simply willing himself to be in command, he can convince everyone that he is. The one lie he can’t be forced to believe is the one he tells about his father working as a surgeon, rather than a barber.

This balance of would-be adult swagger and childish desperation is carefully struck by first time actor Jason Schwartzmann, who would go on to become one of Anderson’s many regulars. Hair swept back and eyes deadly serious behind oversized glasses, he embodies both the fear and want driving Max, and the sincere confidence that he surrounds it with (his drunken “Oh, R they?” impression of “grown-up” humor perfectly, hilariously marries the two). In giving the audience access to the raging bravado of his character without letting them forget his fragile sincerity, Schwartzmann’s performance lets the viewer cringe at and sometimes hate Max while at the same time wishing he could pull himself back together.

As it began one career, Rushmore marked the rebirth of another. As Herman Blume, Max Fischer’s friend and adversary, Bill Murray found a second life as an actor. Anderson had the famously reclusive Murray in mind for the part, and sent him the script with little hope that he’d even read it; he not only read and loved it, but agreed to be paid union minimums to accommodate the film’s meager budget (a story of his writing the director a personal check worth more than his sum payment to fund a helicopter shot the studio wouldn’t cover is not apocryphal).

Murray’s casting turned out to be perfect. Having built his earlier work on a sort of affable goofiness that was effortless to love, he stretches into a darker, lonelier dimension of the same; something like Ghostbusters’ Pete Venkman sitting up alone at 2 o’clock in the morning. In this context the tired hound dog eyes lose their goofiness and gain a profoundly heavy, relatable, everyday sort of sadness that’s perfectly matched to the loss his character feels in the film. His world is as disheveled and out of control as Max’s and to some degree Rosemary’s, but if Max and Rosemary crashed into loss, Herman arrived on a long slow downhill, a much truer, more recognizable type of loss than the childhood loss of a mother or the death of an oceanographer husband. For the most part, we don’t get to watch that sense of childhood “rightness” disappear; we just sort of notice that it’s gone.

Regardless of how they arrived at this pain, both Max and Herman try to get their respective worlds reassembled through their pursuits of a relationship with Ms. Cross, played by Olivia Williams. And at least part of their attraction is rooted in the idea that the losses they’ve all suffered are the same. Yet while Max’s mother had died when he was a child, Rosemary has lost a husband. Max can still imagine some perfect and impossible world where everything is right again; Ms. Cross knows that it can’t be, and there’s a sort of mature resignation in that. While she’d been happy until her husband’s death, Herman may have never actually had his world that together. Herman and Max blur the lines between adult and childhood in their impossible pursuits of control, while Rosemary (a kindergarten teacher, of course) enforces the separation between the two while allowing them to exist side by side. Yes she’s in pain, but she’s come to understand it as a part of life; the world doesn’t get to be as perfect as we want it to, but it can still be pretty good (her husband’s being an oceanographer is a typical Anderson touch, as he’s frequently expressed his admiration for Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and made a full film tribute to him. But where in The Life Aquatic he revisits these childhood fantasies as an adult, in Rushmore they serve as the shining marker of a lost past).

This reconciliation of childhood “all together-ness” with the absurdity of real life is at the core of all Anderson’s work. Rushmore serves, effectively, as a construction piece, the building of a world on this tension, a world that he would inhabit for many of his following films (he wouldn’t address this conflict so directly again until The Grand Budapest Hotel). Despite the immaculate details of all these worlds, he always hints at the violence and messiness of the reality surrounding them. This is, I think, what he had in mind when he originally wanted to score Rushmore entirely with music by The Kinks, referring to their “madmen in blazers” vibe, and in his frequent visual/audio references to Peanuts (the profound melancholy wrapped in the wonderful imagination of a cartoon). My friend is fond of pointing out Anderson’s penchant for breaking characters noses; I prefer to notice that Felicity Fox always paints thunderstorms, and Richie Tenenbaum just paints poorly.

One complaint I’ve heard is that Wes Anderson’s films feel like giant inside jokes. If they are, then the joke is that while the universe is big and scary and never fits the way we want it to, for a little bit it doesn’t have to be. It’s not just being an adult and building a blanket fort with friends; it’s making eye contact with your best friend and knowing that you’re both thinking of that time you built a blanket fort as adults. During a thunderstorm. And for a little while everything felt the way it was supposed to. And missing that feeling.


Friday, July 25th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket were written by Alex Lovendahl, UW Madison student. Bottle Rocket will screen at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 25 in the Marquee Theater at Union South.

Though Wes Anderson is best known for the diorama-and -dollhouse-like sets of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and the almost literal dioramas and dollhouses of the stop-motion film Fantastic Mr. Fox, viewers will see the intricacy of production design and specificity of detail pared down in Anderson’s first feature film, Bottle Rocket. The story of bumbling would-be bandits who happen to be would-be brothers grants us a naïve and vulnerable look at the filmmaker’s relationship to his home territory and fellow dreamers.

Bottle Rocket marks the feature debut of screenwriter/actor Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the script with Anderson. The two lived in a small home and shared two beds with the other two Wilson brothers, Luke and Andrew (also debuting as protagonist Anthony and John “Future Man” Mapplethorpe, respectively).  Anderson and Wilson would write three films together, culminating with The Royal Tenenbaums. They stopped writing together as Wilson became in higher demand as an actor, and Anderson’s films took a somber turn, beginning with his meditation on irrelevancy with The Life Aquatic (co-written by Noah Baumbach.)

Not until The Life Aquatic would an Anderson film be as sun-drenched as Bottle Rocket. Few films look as warm in their depictions of summer without saturating their oranges and blues; Bottle Rocket instead highlights its yellows, from Dignan’s jumpsuits to the bedsheets of the motel. Few turn of the century filmmakers captured yellows and warmth with the same enthusiasm as Anderson and his go-to cinematographer Robert Yeoman.

Though Bottle Rocket’s visual style is less meticulously staged than its successors, the production design is outstanding. The trademark Anderson handwritten insert – Dignan’s seventy-five year plan – utilizes multiple colors of markers not to reflect Dignan’s inability to plan the heist quickly, but rather his highly capable organization (note that only headers and prefaces appear in blue, whereas actual “plans” appear in red). However, don’t mistake that organization for capability; Dignan’s plans remain vague, often suggesting simple ideas like “odds” as keys to living successfully. Consider that the scenes at the Mapplethorpes’ house were filmed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s John Gillen Residence, a home designed by an architect out of time for a Texan geophysicist.

Though laughs permeate all of Anderson’s films, Bottle Rocket is consistently funny. The majority of the staff deliver these lines casually and conversationally, making the absurd seem normal, nondescript. None relish the opportunity more than James Caan, who chews his way through a rejection of Anthony and a total shutdown of Future Man in his first ten minutes on screen as Mr. Henry. Given a short amount of time in the film, Caan chooses to make the most of what he’s given.

I claim the true star, of surprise to no one who has seen the film, is Owen Wilson’s Dignan, the excitable obsessive and one of Anderson’s iconic characters. Hungry for adventure, he wants to live on the edges of normal life, an outlaw with a heart of gold. He rejects the simple, the casual, the conversational, always “calling his gang” with a birdcall or launching into another layer of his scheme, alienating himself to the point of ignoring his friends’ happiness. But, unlike the self-destructive Max Fischer of Rushmore, Dignan refuses to advance without his companions. Though he storms off angrily, one request from Bob to be on the team is enough to make Dignan declare his one ultimatum; the slightest hint of interest from Anthony is enough to make Wilson flash a beautiful smile. Without the combination of Wilson’s belief in the character’s beauty and his failings, both in the writing and the acting, Bottle Rocket could not exist in its current form.

The film performs a balancing act. It is about the naïveté, adventurous spirit, and social ignorance of Dignan and his love for friends and brothers. Simultaneously it carries the “Born to Run” spirit of living in a town too small for one’s dreams. Each viewing, I have come away feeling differently about its core, though Dignan runs away with my affection each and every time.

The final heist is as ridiculous as an amateur heist could be. It is truly amazing that Bottle Rocket and Fargo were both released in the first months of 1996 and that one film could not have directly inspired the other. How else could the absurd misconduct of Dignan and Steve Buscemi’s Carl Showalter reflect the same ridiculous misunderstanding of the importance of masks and the value of awareness? But where Fargo damns its kidnappers, facing the darkest elements of their psyche, Bottle Rocket absolves them. Dignan/Wilson’s last lines in the film foreshadow the fall from innocence Anderson and Wilson would explore in their next, more well-regarded film, Rushmore.


Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy




A late addition to the UW Cinematheque’s Summer 2014 screening calendar, Steve James’ new documentary Life Itself will have its only Madison-area theatrical screening on Saturday, August 9 at 3 p.m. at the Marquee Theater at Union South.

James, the director of Hoop Dreams, tells the life story of the most beloved and influential film critic of our times, Roger Ebert (1942-2013). Based on Ebert’s best-selling memoir, James’ funny, revealing, nostalgic and emotional bio-doc covers all of the major chapters in Ebert’s life: his childhood and university education in Urbana, IL; his Pulitzer Prize-winning career at the Chicago Sun-Times; his alcoholism; his marriage to Chaz Ebert; and his frequently tumultuous television partnership with fellow critic Gene Siskel.  For some of the most memorable sequences, Ebert allowed James to film him in the final months of his struggles with cancer, an illness that took his speaking voice, but not his ability to experience the joy of living.

Life Itself is a work of deftness and delicacy, by turns a film about illness and death, about writing, about cinema and, finally, and very movingly a film about love.” (Geoffrey O’Brien, The New York Times)

Following its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Life Itself received another acclaimed screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and was released theatrically around the country earlier this month.

Life Itself and all other Cinematheque screenings are free and open to the public. Please see below for a complete listing of programs and series descriptions. The Cinematheque’s website (http://cinema.wisc.edu) currently features further information on the rest of our Summer 2014 lineup.

Life Itself will screen August 9, 3 p.m. at

Marquee Theater at Union South

1308 W. Dayton Street

Madison, WI 53715

Admission free, seating limited. No admission 15 minutes after scheduled start times.

Our website: http://cinema.wisc.edu

See you at the Movies!

Jim Healy, Director of Programming


Thursday, July 17th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

If you have not experienced the charming and sincere pleasures of the Wisconsin-made documentary American Movie, you are surely in for a treat. It will be screening this Friday, July 18th, in the Marquee Theater at Union South at 7 PM. A 35mm print will be shown. The first time I watched the film, I loved it so much that I watched it three days in a row, ready for a fourth. There is something truly sweet and endearing in young aspiring filmmaker Mark Borchardt’s journey to make his film, and the depiction of his relationships with his family and friends who help him along the way is what make the movie truly great. I'm particularly thinking here of Mark's relationship with the begrudgingly assigned executive producer- his dying uncle. An honest gem, American Movie will forever stay at the top of my list of favorite films, largely due to Mark’s earnest, good-hearted nature and determination, along with the hysterical, thick Wisconsin accents. Oh, you betcha! 

Here is a link to Mark’s debut short film Coven, the movie you'll see him make in American Movie. Coven was meant to create attention and raise funds so that Mark could finish his feature film project, Northwestern. While Northwestern was never completed, Mark has reasons to be proud of Coven, a harrowing short  which focuses on a downtrodden man
going to what appears to be a support group, but which turns out to be a gathering for a Wiccan cult. Have at it!


(Bianca Martin)


Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These Notes on Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up were written by Hamidreza Nassiri, a Teaching Assistant and Ph.D candidate in UW Madison's Communication Arts Department. The UW Cinematheque will present a 35mm print of Close-Up on Thursday, July 17, at 7 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art.

Abbas Kiarostami is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the last two decades, one who represents “the highest level of artistry in cinema” according to Martin Scorsese. His initial studies were in painting at the University of Tehran, later embarking upon filmmaking in the 1970s and 80s at Kanoon, an institute in Tehran that played an important role in forming young filmmakers during this period. Kiarostami first became known to international audiences with the film Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), which won the Bronze Leopard at the Locarno film festival. In 1997 he won the Cannes Palme d’Or for Taste of Cherry (1997). Kiarostami has made films in so many different fields and styles that David Bordwell has acknowledged him as the filmmaker with the “widest octave range” he has ever known. The most well-known Iranian director in the world, Kiarostami has influenced such filmmakers as Michael Haneke, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Aki Kaurismaki, and Ramin Bahrani.

Close-Up followed Where Is the Friend’s Home? and Homework (1989). Prior to its production, Kiarostami was already in pre-production for Pocket Money when he read a piece of news about a man who impersonated the famous Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, in order to take advantage of a middle-class family. Kiarostami thus decided to postpone Pocket Money, and Kiarostami and his crew began shooting Close-Up shortly thereafter.

The news of this impersonator, Hossain Sabzian, was published in Soroush magazine and the film itself begins with a sequence where a Soroush reporter, Hassan Farazmand, accompanies a soldier and a taxi driver to arrest Sabzian. Following a non-chronological narrative structure, Close-Up also depicts Kiarostami’s efforts to make a film about him and Sabzian’s trial. Flashbacks of what happened to Sabzian and the Ahankhahs are interspersed between the courtroom scenes. Finally, the film ends with Sabzian’s release from prison, and his encounter with the real Makhmalbaf. This structure is a departure from the chronological order of the film’s first edit. As Godfrey Cheshire elucidates, the projectionist at a festival in Munich made a mistake and showed the reels in the wrong order. Kiarostami for his part liked this new version of the film, compelling him to re-edit the film to its current iteration.

Close-Up is a combination of documentary and fiction. It is based on a real story and all the people in the film play themselves as they are in the real world. Even the soldier who arrests Sabzian in the film is the same individual who did so in reality. This blending is to such an extent that it has made it difficult for audiences to realize which parts of the film are documentary filmmaking and which parts were re-enacted or constructed.

Close-Up is, more than anything, concerned with illusion and identity. Farazmand, the reporter, is another version of Sabzian in his emulation of Oriana Fallaci, the great Italian journalist. Later in the film, Mr. Ahankhah (the father of the family that was infiltrated by Sabzian) claims that he had realized Sabzian was not the real Makhmalbaf, while Farazmand writes in his magazine that it was he himself who resolved the case and the flashbacks confirm this.. Farazmand aspires to the persona of Fallaci in order to achieve the fame, respect, and perhaps even the money such figures earn. For his part, Sabzian also craves respect and money—though more the former than the latter. He confesses in court that he found pleasure in the Ahankhahs obeying him when he asked them to do something. An unemployed man burdened with financial issues, he further confesses to the judge that he can sometimes not even afford to buy anything for his family’s breakfast. In spite of his disparate social positioning to Farazmand, the film draws distinct thematic parallels between their impersonations of more successful figures.

In our reading of this piece, we can further extrapolate this depiction of impersonation to the illusions implicit in cinema itself. According to Alireza Zarrindast, the film’s director of photography, the flashback scenes where we see the story of Sabzian and the Ahankhahs were shot on 35mm film, while those in the courtroom were shot instead on 16mm. In the courtroom, the camera is also relatively restless in comparison to other scenes, zooming in and out several times. Such cinematography is reminiscent of news reportage and documentary filmmaking. Moreover, the performances, from Sabzian and the Ahankhahs to the judge are very realistic. However, this scene was in fact recreated, but with the intent of remaining faithful to the actual words recorded in the courtroom. Even, according to Cheshire, interruptions in sound in the final sequence were created in post-production and are not real. Close-Up as such questions not only documentary cinema, but cinema in general, and challenges viewers to distinguish the reality and its imitations.

This theme is achieved in a confluence of both style and narrative. Sabzian is an extreme cinephile, sacrificing his life and family for the cinema. He is enraptured not only by movies themselves, but also by the aura that surrounds them and their makers. It is for this reason that, of all the people he could impersonate, he chose a film director. Hence, Close-Up underlines its critique of the illusionistic quality of cinema and its peripheries. As Werner Herzog remarks, it is “the greatest documentary on filmmaking” he has ever seen.

Issues of alienation stemming from socio-economics are truly transnational, and the commentary on these issues in Close-Up has engendered its warm reception with audiences around the globe. In this critique, Kiarostami discusses the similarities between Sabzian and the Ahankhah family, pointing out how their similarities draw them to each other. The Ahankhahs are likewise challenged by socio-economic problems and unemployment as a result of both the revolution and the 8-year war with Iraq. The Ahankhahs belong to the middle class, but their sons, both educated in engineering, are either unemployed or working in unrelated fields.

We can track Close-Up’s influence on different films. An example could be Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012), in which, like in Close-Up, different characters tell their own stories about a unique event and it is hard for an audience to find the truth. Polley’s recreation of real events and combining documentary and fiction in the way that it would be sometimes hard to distinguish them is another important thing inspired by Close-Up. Many filmmakers and critics around the world have admired and drawn upon Close-Up. In 2012, Sight and Sound chose it as one of their “Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time.”

Close-Up ends with a frozen image of Sabzian, regretful but smiling. His dream has come true; now his picture is on the billboards on the streets and festivals around the world. With this framing, I am compelled to say that, while criticizing the illusionistic quality of cinema, Close-Up is also thus an act of homage to it, an art that can make dreams and illusions into reality.

- Hamidreza Nassiri


Thursday, March 27th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay reflecting on David Gordon Green's George Washington (2000), was written by UW Madison student Ryan Waal (class of 2015). Green personally presented George Washington at the 2001 Wisconsin Film Festival. Green will appear in person at the April 3 Opening Night screening of the Wisconsin Film Festival with his new film, Joe, starring Nicolas Cage. Tickets for the screening of Joe are currently "rush only". George Washington has just been released on blu-ray by the Criterion Collection.

David Gordon Green’s George Washington stands alongside Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Richard Linklater’s Slacker as one of the most auspicious no-budget debuts in recent film history. Made for only $42,000 with mostly non-professional actors, the film’s small theatrical release prevented it from achieving the same breakout success as those other two films, but strong critical praise and festival showings helped Green rise to prominence as a major new player on the indie scene. But George Washington’s importance for Green’s career can sometimes overshadow the film itself—a lyrical, inspired, bizarre, permanently memorable parable that conjures an entire world unique both in setting and in feeling.

It takes place in an unidentified lower-class town in North Carolina, a town colored in various shades of brown, brimming with dilapidated buildings, dirt, excrement, landfill and stray animals. Despite the setting, this movie is hardly concerned with social messages about poverty—Green devotes his energy to crafting a tapestry of unique and complex characters. There are Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) and George Richardson (Donald Holden), two young boys fighting for the affection of Nasia (Candace Evanofski), who narrates the story. Their friends, the older, larger Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) and the tiny, monotone Sonya (Rachel Handy) play around town, steal cars and harass a group of eccentric train mechanics who provide much of the film’s comic relief. George, whose father is in jail, lives with his Aunt Ruth (Janet Taylor) and Uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse), a hot-tempered rail-and-woodworker desperately afraid of animals.

George Washington begins innocuously as a tale of young love set against this backdrop of colorful individuals; in the film’s opening scene, Nasia dumps Buddy for George. It’s a scene at once heartbreaking and mirthful—these kids are too young to understand what love really means. Soon though, the tone and focus of the film changes. George is implicated in two major events: the death of one child, the rescue of another. The complicated juxtaposition of these two events, the way George and his friends wrestle with them internally and the acceptance they ultimately find are the center of this film. Green unspools an enormously complicated morality play and places it in the midst of a coming-of-age story, making the film an unusual, yet captivating genre hybrid.

Viewers of George Washington will almost certainly pick up on at least one of Green’s stylistic influences early on: that would be Terrence Malick, of whom Green is a self-professed partisan (Malick co-produced Green’s Undertow in 2004). Green incorporates a great deal of Malick’s aesthetic: the lyrical, meditative voiceover narration of children; the languid pacing; the exhaustive use of natural imagery and his general emphasis of feeling over narrative. Green overtly acknowledges Malick’s influence upon him in one scene, when he essentially recreates the final shot of Malick's Days of Heaven (1978) by having George walk along a railroad track.

Like that film, George Washington is largely concerned with the way children grapple with the trauma and complexity of adulthood. Nassia’s voice-over narration recalls Linda Manz, whose innocent musing buffers and frames the adults’ story in Heaven. Both directors see childhood as a period of objective purity, and both films convey the loss of that purity by throwing the characters straight into the dark realities of life.
But it would be dismissive and unfair to say that Green merely copies Malick’s style; Green has talents and idiosyncrasies that no other director has. Malick, for instance, never incorporates humor in his movies in the same way Green does here—he knows just how long to hold an awkward pause and when to cut a shot for maximum comedic effect. When George becomes a town hero for rescuing a young boy from the county pool, his newfound confidence transforms him (both mentally and sartorially) into a superhero, providing surprising yet tonally appropriate levity to a heavy story.

Green is also willing to let his narrative bloom out into many different strands, incorporating asides with characters that appear unimportant. One of the great surprise moments in the film involves Damascus explaining his fear of dogs to George. He tells a traumatic, formative story from his childhood that changes our opinion of him from a selfish jerk to a fragile, human person. The scene makes us wonder how George will be changed by his experiences, what fears and ideologies coagulate within his mind. The narrative may seem disjointed and unfocused at times, but it is the thematic rather than causal relationships between the characters that makes this film fascinating and rewatchable.

You may be wondering what the title means. I don’t know either. Nasia tells us repeatedly throughout the film that George wants to be the President of the United States, and George’s bedroom prominently features a portrait of George H.W. Bush. Perhaps we are meant to laugh at and pity George’s ambitions. Or perhaps we are meant to consider the childhoods of our own heroes, and wonder what moments in their lives made them who they are today. Presidents, like lawyers, I suppose, were children once.

I don’t know, and part of me doesn’t care. Many elements of George Washington remain puzzling and unclear. Some may say this makes the film flawed; I say it makes it a classic.